Reading: Letter to the Hebrews, 1.1-4; 2.5-12
From conversations that I’ve had with Christian parents, I know that our young people often have difficulty with the contrast between being in the church and being outside, especially at school. Inside the church they are with people who know the stories of Yahweh’s doings with Israel and of his New Thing in Jesus the Messiah. But at school they are talking with friends and teachers who know none of this. It’s the same for us adults too. We are in the middle of a process of cultural forgetting about our roots and cultural misunderstanding of what the church is about and does for our society.
Yesterday, the Christmas catalogue of ‘The Original Gift Company’ dropped through our letter box. You can tell it’s the Christmas edition by the Dickensian shop front and Christmas trees on the cover. But nowhere in it are any ‘gifts’ that refer to the story of Christmas, unless you count one cherub and a tea-light decoration with three angelic children. You can, however, buy a full set of laughing Bhuddhas and a lucky Bhuddist elephant that only works if it’s on a high shelf.
This increasing amnesia for the stories of Yahweh, Israel, Jesus and the church are making it more and more difficult to share our good news of the ‘new in Jesus’ with our neighbours, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They simply don’t understand what we are talking about. They live in a different world from ours. How can we move out from our church home into a world which is losing the categories of thought that would enable its inhabitants to understand what we are saying? How can we say ‘Jesus is Lord’ in a way that can be understood enough to present people with a choice of whether to follow him or not?
The short answer is ‘like the early church did’. Those early small town Jewish converts to Christianity found a way to speak to their Gentile neighbours throughout the Roman Empire. They managed to use Gentile concepts when talking to Gentiles, and yet still maintain a link to the stories of Yahweh and Israel and keep faithful to their new experience of God through Jesus.
It was some feat because Gentiles thought very differently about how the universe works than did Jews. Gentiles of the time believed in a top-down universe. At the top was what we might call God, which was thought to be perfect and timeless. The top was connected to the earth at the bottom by a sort of ladder which consisted of beings that got less and less like God the lower down the ladder you went, with us at the bottom. This hierarchy of lesser beings gave God some power in the world but protected it from contamination by the imperfect changelings of earth. Anyone that wanted to get to the top of the ladder to merge with God had to give up the characteristics of what we think of as human - especially the body and its desires. It left human beings rather alone. Now, Israel’s experience of Yahweh was very different from this Gentile view of how things work. Israel had experienced Yahweh as being involved in the daily detail of their life, they knew his love and his anger and even his violence. They tell the story, too, in their scriptures, of how Yahweh was a God who changed. He had a history, a story. The early Jewish christians claim to have experienced the latest and newest and peak chapter in that story. It was that story that they wanted to pass on to their Gentile acquaintances, families and friends - people with a very different world-view than their own. We can get a clue about how they did this from The Letter to the Hebrews, whose introduction we have just heard read to us.
It sounds as if the writer [we don’t know who he or she was] was addressing a group of newly converted Gentiles who were feeling tempted to go back to their old ways of thinking. The writer’s masterstroke is to get on to their wavelength by constructing a picture that they would understand of God at the top of a ladder populated by angels who were his communication with earth. Then he proves by means of various quotes from some Psalms that Jesus is son of God at the top. Then he show how God first makes Jesus lower than the angels, then, after he suffers a human death, exalts him and puts everything under his feet. In his return to the top of the ladder Jesus brings with him ‘many sons to glory’. The writer is saying that God, in Jesus, is collapsing the ladder and that people who attach themselves to Jesus are drawn into his presence, with no need to divest themselves of their humanity, body and all. What the writer has done is to start with the Gentile view of the universe and show how God in Jesus subverts it and brings God and man, earth and heaven into communion. This must have sounded like good news to many folk of the time, because the church spread quickly in Gentile populations.
The main point of this sermon is to say that we need to engage in the same process today as did the writer to the Hebrews 20 centuries ago, though not using his ideas or words. If we start talking to modern people who have no experience of church about angels they might well be interested, because the word might tweak a kind of New Agey frisson of the strangely spiritual. But they cannot immediately understand what the writer to the Hebrews is really talking about because by and large the people we share our lives with today don’t share our view of a universe that is open ‘at the top’ to the creative, sustaining, blessing power of God. They live in a closed universe. If we are going to be able to share with them the good news of Jesus we need to understand their world and the way they feel their needs. So we need to learn to listen before we talk. [A question which I’m not going to try to answer today is how can we help each other to do this, and how can we help our young people to do it?] Though understandings and needs vary between different people and groups we can nevertheless discern some wider patterns, which might help us to attune our ears to what understanding and needs underlie the conversations we have with our friends, families and colleagues. I’ll list a few, in no particular order:
1. People are anxious. They don’t feel safe in the world - climate change and fears of shortages and of violence and so on.
2. When things go wrong, or someone does wrong, people think that someone should pay, hence the adverts by accident lawyers on TV.
3. There is no help - it’s down to each one of us to compete for what’s going, to grab, to win. We are alone.
4. We mean nothing unless we are celebrities
5. No-one is expressing a believable vision for what things could be like, and few believe it really can get better [politicians are useless or all the same]
6. There is little sense of awe - except in those secular religious events such as the lottery draw, military parades, royal weddings and the like.
People have ways of diverting themselves, of hiding from these needs in their lives. They include a search for personal fulfilment in body, mind, job etc; wistful optimism; cynicism, radical protest; and historical romanticism.
But what do we say to our friends and acquaintances when we notice such needs as these in what they say and do. How do we bring them gospel, evangelion, good news?
The writer to the Hebrews says ‘But we do see Jesus’. We do see Jesus. We have found, are learning to find, him a trustworthy saviour who meets the needs that I’ve spoken of, who meets our needs. So we can talk to our friends and acquaintances about him. About the Son of Man, the Truly Human One. They might just find it easier to hear us we we talk about a man rather than about God, at least at first.
But what sort of things might we say?
- to those drying up from lack of a vision we might tell them of his manifesto at Nazareth [Luke 4.17 ff] where he claimed to be bringing sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, movement to the lame and good news to the poor. We might tell them of his assurance that a new society from the future where all is right is growing in the world and will one day be all that is.
- to those who feel that someone should pay, or that they need to pay for what they are ashamed of, we might say that Jesus said that he came to give his life a ransom for many, so no other payments for guilt are due, ever again.
- to those who feel alone we might invite to pray and be prayed with, and to offer opportunities to enjoy hospitality in our community - though that means that when we meet we need to be open about the fact that we are people who find our needs met in Jesus.
- to those who are frightened of death we might tell of how he refused to stay dead and conquered all the powers that degrade human life by rising again.
- to the sick we might bring experiences of healing.
- to those who want to find a new way to live we might tell of how he left his Spirit so that we can experience being part of him and can find power to live as he teaches e.g in loving our enemies, in waging peace not war, in sharing our goods.
But let me remind you - this work has to be done person to person, group by group, and it must start with listening.
Those early Christians were fired up with their experience of Jesus, the risen Jesus. They were able to make the jump from the Jewish to the Greek world partly by using the ideas of that world and showing how Jesus had radically changed things and brought good news. That good news spread like wild-fire so that what started with one man, the Truly Human One, and a few fishermen became the official faith of the Roman Empire in about three centuries. We find ourselves in similar sorts of times to those early Christians. God can do again what he’s done before.